Irish Referendum May 22: Women who struggle seriously for peace but lau gh at hecklers

PEARL SAGAR'S background is Protestant working class, she is essentially a Unionist, she is married to a British soldier who served in Northern Ireland, and until recently she was, she says, politically apathetic: "The first time I ever voted was for myself, and that was just two years ago."

Ms Sagar's work in the Women's Coalition movement has incurred the antipathy of some loyalist activists who forced her to move from her previous home. She is, they say, a traitor who has betrayed her community.

It is not just street-level extremists who find the 39-year-old grandmother such a threat to the established order. The Rev Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party are said to seethe with rage at Ms Sagar and her co-founder of the coalition, Monica McWilliams, who is a Catholic. Many of the insults flung at them were overtly sexist. "Stupid, whingeing women," they were called at the Northern Ireland Forum. Iris Robinson, wife of DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, declared: "Thank God only 7,000 idiots voted for these women."

Ms Sagar has become adept at turning the sexist insults back on her attackers. When a DUP member, finding it difficult to fathom the consensual nature of the coalition, demanded to know whether it was nationalist or loyalist, she responded: "Surely since we are women it must depend on the time of the month."

When during discussions on decommissioning of weapons Mr Paisley started a tirade about the birth rates of Catholics and how the Protestants must procreate to protect Ulster's British legacy, she turned to a colleague and said, sotto voce: "Does he want an adjournment so we can all go and start at once?"

And then there was Willie McCrea, also of the DUP, who declared: "As long as I live, I will have a mission, which is to teach these two women to stand behind the loyal men of Ulster." At this point Ms Sagar and Ms McWilliams burst into a rendition of "Stand By Your Man".

The Women's Coalition was founded by Ms Sagar, a social worker, and Ms McWilliams, a social scientist, in 1996. Within weeks they had picked up 7,731 votes for the Forum. Under a top-up system, designed to ensure the involvement of fringe loyalist groups, the coalition won two seats at the Forum and Stormont, taken up by the movement's two leaders.

The bigger parties were not enamoured with the system. The Unionists, for example, ended up with only one more delegate than the coalition for the all-party talks.

Ms McWilliams, a Queen's University graduate and a Michigan post-graduate, has had by far the higher profile of the two leaders of the movement. Ms Sagar has kept a lower profile. However, she refuses to be overawed by those who consider themselves to be her political elders. "It is only when I got [to the talks] that I began to realise just how childish politics had become in Northern Ireland,"she says. "People here have simply been playing politics for the last 28 years.

"All the talking has been about the sectarian divisions, with powerful interests doing their best to maintain that divide. What they haven't addressed are the real issues like the conditions the working-class people live in, their jobs, their education."

Ms Sagar and her colleague have tried to steel themselves to cope with the barracking and heckling to which they are subjected. She explained: "I've probably been helped by the fact that I am not particularly politically correct, and I sometimes laugh at jokes I shouldn't do. Our hecklers look confused when I laugh at them. I've also taught myself just to carry on with the speeches, you can see that deflate them as well."

She believes the future is full of promise. "What the peace process has done is change the political map of Northern Ireland," she says. "People will hopefully in the future not vote according to whether they are Catholic or Protestants, but according to their own hopes and needs. I'm very glad I am here to see this happen."